Monday, June 22, 2020

Top Ten Progressive Rock LPs - The Predictable List

We can easily trace progressive rock back 50 years and its catalyst was far earlier. The Canterbury Scene, for instance, can trace its roots all the way back to 1963, pre-Psychedelia. Most rock historians will go back to the bands that served as the precursors to Yes or ELP (Tomorrow, The Nice) in the late 60s. Recently on our FB page, the question arose regarding our top ten progressive rock LPs, so here goes...

The most informative musical era for me growing up was 1972 through 1976, High School. For the most part, that encompassed progressive rock, which by '73 had peaked, with a smattering of The Who (Quadrophenia) Zeppelin (particularly Houses of the Holy) and Bowie (Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs). But mostly for me, it was all about Yes and Genesis, Gentle Giant and Amon Düül II. Utilizing a jaded rubric that only allows for one record per band, here are my favorite classic-era progressive rock LPs. There is something glaringly obvious about the list: there is no such thing as American progressive rock (and don’t say Styx or I’ll have one of those little throw-ups in my mouth). And my choices were as predictable as expected.

Now, for those of you determined to stick up for American progressive rock and scream “Zappa” at the top of your lungs – I rescind my statement, but Zappa is in a category all its/his own. And let me add that American psychedelia far overshadows what the British were doing. In a way, prog was a construct of psychedelia owing much to the Beatles and the American psychedelic scene, but it is British by default.

Those codicils and disclaimers out of the way, here is my list. 10 – 1. And again, it’s quite predictable. Later in the week we'll explore some of the offshoots of the movement and a bevy of less predictable titles.

10.  Camel – The Snow Goose. Simply a beautifully accomplished instrumental LP , the music is deceivingly light and airy with some of the most precise guitar work on record. There’s an obvious Floyd feel to it – much of the headier parts sound like Echoes outtakes, but it’s lovely on its surface, but like the story from which it comes, it’s all between the lines.
9. Jethro Tull – Thick as a Brick. While it’s hard for me not to choose Aqualung or even A Passion Play, which is more cohesively conceptual, this is the classic Tull LP and ultimately listenable in its entirety. The concept piece, about a lurid poem written by a young boy named Gerald Bostock is balanced and quirky and plays like an off-centered Harry Potter construct. Here lies incredible musicianship and of course the centerpiece is Anderson’s flute and his Dickensian delivery. The cover folds out into a daily newspaper with clues to the hidden meanings, which Anderson says don’t exist, that it is all a ruse. This selection, alongside Selling England and Octopus show just how British prog is.
8. ELP - Trilogy – Gorgeous Lake vocals and a production that is far less bombastic than Brain Salad Surgery.
7. Alan Parsons Project – Tales of Mystery and Imagination – When production tops everything else, that’s the calling card of Alan Parsons. Texture upon texture. This is a pop/classical LP for sure, but brilliant and still as listenable today as in 1975.
6. Renaissance – Scheherazade – The most unusual and underrated of the bunch. Beautiful vocals of Annie Haslam, sprawling imagery and a mastery of progressive balladry. It’s like prog minuet.
5. Dark Side of the Moon – Do I have to say anything at all?
4. Gentle Giant – Octopus - Octopus is complex and offbeat, but the ensemble musicianship has few peers.  There are elements of jazz and folk, and the mixed vocals give the whole album a kind of whimsical feel, from madrigals to loves sonnets.  “Knots” with its staccato a cappella harmonies and xylophone is a highlight, if less accessible, alongside “Panurge,” the comedy of “A Dog’s Life” and the lovely and sad, “Think of Me With Kindness.”
3. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King – The progenitor of them all. This is where, in 1968, it all began. Fripp leads an incredible cast that is lyrically blessed by Pete Sinfield and vocalized by Greg Lake. There are flaws that can be forgiven based on the myriad of firsts and the notion that rock music was about quality musicianship.
2. Selling England By the Pound – Gabriel and the band at their finest. Gabriel usurped leadership, but each of the members could claim equal musicianship. Sometimes it's about Gabriel, sometimes about Hackett, etc., but the whole is what makes this number 2 on the list. And not enough is ever said about Collins’ jazz drum take.
1. Close to the Edge – I published a post on the LP's virtues in the past. This is one that takes nothing but a listen to fall under its spell.

The big question from some of you is, if Dark Side of the Moon is your favorite LP of all time, how can it be No. 5 on your prog list? It’s the standout LP even amongst this bunch, but it is only minimally prog, and so in the grand scheme of things, it ranks 5th.

Others that didn’t quite make the list include ELO’s prog-pop Eldorado, Amon Duul II’s Yeti, which is far ahead of its time, The Soft Machine’s Third, which like the Mahavishnu Orchestra is more fusion than prog, Rick Wakeman’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Anthony Phillips’ The Geese and the Ghost, Steve Hackett’s Voyage of the Acolyte and a myriad of LPs from bands already on the list such as ELP’s Tarkus and Brain Salad Surgery, Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here and Animals, King Crimson’s Poseidon, and Lark’s Tongue in Aspic, and Yes’s Fragile, Relayer, and Tales From Topographic Oceans.

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